The Remix Manifesto: Part 2

Posted: June 9, 2014 in Just opinion and nothing more
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 MJ B&W image1



Part 2 of 3: Things you might like to know about remixes in general


Just what IS a remix, anyway?

The simplest answer is: someone’s reinterpretation of someone else’s idea that came before, using the original ingredients in some other way.

One can remix nearly anything: scientific theories, recipes, automobiles, the written word, and famously, music…

Musical remixes cover the whole spectrum, from simple efforts to slip a faster or stronger tempo or more bass or beat under the existing song, to really musically complex and carefully thought-out manipulations, to interesting and thought-provoking “mash-ups” (that is, combining two or more of MJ’s own songs or combining his with somebody else’s). Some sound incredibly polished, some have their rocky moments.

Frankly, I have not heard a remix done on Michael Jackson yet (official or not) that wasn’t done respectfully.

As with anything else, the beauty of remixes definitely resides in the “eyes of the beholder” – the ears of the listener.

Some work very well, some are awkward; some make you crazy with repetition of some phrase or riff that the mixer fell in love with; some make you laugh out loud; some cause sudden tears to flow…

Your reaction will be individual to you, if you allow the experience.

(Just like the original song – to which the remix takes you back, like a mini time machine.)

Personally, I love being surprised. Remixes are surprising.

When I listen to any album first time I purposely don’t read the playlist or the liner notes.

I want to be grabbed. Startled. Amused. Perplexed. I want to wonder.

Since I already know most of MJ’s songs, that isn’t easy, but remixes can do it, and they force me to listen to the song with fresh ears… sometimes in an entirely different way!

By highlighting a certain lyric or phrase, or changing the order of lyrics I already know, the remix can also cause me to concentrate on the song as if it were new again (which it is) – take nothing for granted – really listen to it – and the new mix can even (by use of blending techniques) cause the final result to be a much more abstract experience than MJ’s original song, almost like a classical or jazz piece rather than a pop song. As I love all those forms of music, this to me is amazing and intriguing.  His voice becomes another instrument because it IS his instrument. What once was a specific genre vocal track thus may become part of something way larger than itself. Truly a fascinating transformation.

Just because MJ didn’t do it that way himself doesn’t make it invalid or wrong – just different. Diversity in action.

Occasionally I’ll listen to the first bars of a remix and I can’t honestly predict which MJ song I’m going to get!

To me, that echoes his own work because all his original songs were so very different; no two were the same, and nobody could say “Ho hum, the same old MJ song again…”

Remixes can actually energize a song in a different way.

(For example – though technically a cover, MJ’s version of “Come Together” gave the song a completely different energetic attitude, one so comprehensive that I can’t really consider it just a cover! Remixes can do exactly that too.)

I don’t react to music in an intellectual manner – rather I have always been taken by music in a very visceral, organic way… I react emotionally as much to the music as I do to lyrics, and most especially to the vocal inflections and delivery or level of involvement offered by the artist – singing or talking or scatting or beat-boxing or breathing or whatever he/she is doing. It’s part of the art – like brush-strokes on a painting. Sound-strokes! MJ gave us all the strokes he could manage, and remixers are intrigued by them. Great art, see, inspires in different ways.

Leaving the abstract and embracing the technical, I often think of remixes as “reverse engineering” – the remixer disassembles the song into its component parts, sees how it works and how it’s put together, examines the individual parts, keeps or discards, adds, tweaks and tunes, and then reassembles those original parts with the energy of his or her own inspiration as part of the new song.

Remixers of MJ songs have even provided little unexpected gifts in their efforts – like stripping away some of MJ’s relentless (and relentlessly wonderful) multi-tracking and layering to suddenly allow clarity on a lyric I never connected with before, or on the beauty of his unadorned voice, or focusing on a background layer more prominently to let it be heard more strongly – this has happened a number of times. I love these gifts! They are spice and frosting on a winning recipe.

Remixing means making a thing more complex than the sum of its parts, and while perhaps not precisely the man in the mirror, it remains a living, breathing piece of art that honors its ancestry back to the original.


And please remember – remixing the music of someone else is not easy.

To do it properly, effectively, one needs to at least think like a musician (or ideally be one) because one is addressing so many properties of the song.

Questions a remixer asks:

  • Am I putting a new rhythm inside the original tempo?
  • What would that do to the vocal pitch and clarity? The lyrics?
  • Am I introducing another instrumental or vocal line in a different key?
  • Will it matter if the lead vocal sounds sharp or flat because of that?
  • What am I trying to say in the changes I’m making?
  • Am I combining it with another song composed in a different style and will that affect the way the original is perceived?

(This is an actual criticism directed at an OFFICIAL MJJ Productions remix of “They Don’t Care About Us”, a song in which MJ expresses anger, disgust, strong emotion, and controversial language –  which was remixed with a lighter instrumental and struck many listeners as having trivialized the intended message of the song!)

  • Is there another mashed-up vocal line that competes or obscures?
  • Should the lead vocal be more “up front” or more blended?
  • How do I get the listener into and out of the remixed song? (MJ was a master at those…)
  • And how will the listener react to the new hybrid? What do I expect?

All these philosophical considerations are piled on top of the essential mechanical exercises of changing the song’s structure, and add to the task’s complexity.

Editing! Ah, editing.

Sometimes the remixes contain pinpoint, extra-precise editing that just leaves me in awe…

In addition to the melody, harmony and lyrics, MJ provided a vast library of sounds and vocal comments from which to choose.

Sometimes the mixers drill completely down to a single phrase, syllable, note, or breath – to present the listener with a small gem, in sound.

That takes talent… and I really admire talent.


Why DO remixes and mash-ups even work, and also the so-called “megamixes”?

(Well —– not all of them do!)

But what makes them even possible is the time signature.

Most “popular” music is written in the common or simple time signature, known as 4/4 time or four-four time. Meaning there are four beats to a measure, and a quarter-note gets one full beat.

So – in theory – this large-scale “standardization” of sorts means that most of MJ‘s songs could be strung together in one huge mondo song, back to back – without missing a beat. This is also why they can be remixed and mashed up with other pop songs without exceptional difficulty, barring enormous rhythmic or stylistic differences.

Rhythm and key are the next big considerations; a good remixer takes the rhythm issue into account immediately when deciding how to mix or mash the songs, and also of course the key (major, minor, dominant note) in which the song is written. Even if you don’t know what this lingo means, your ears will catch on quickly.

Rhythm can be altered directly on the original song or altered indirectly by combination with another existing track. Mixes that “play” with rhythm add complexity. Changing one variable means the likely need to change others.

Trickiest of all is the issue of the key signature of the song in relation to the changes made by a remixer. Major key instrumental added to minor key vocal? Vice versa? A mix of both?

No problem for those with the ability to adjust key by some electronic means.

But if this is not addressed, the result may be what I refer to as a “key collision” or “key-lision” – which may or may not matter to the remixer, who may be comfortable with a certain level of incompatibility in the ears of the listener in order to make a statement with another aspect of the song.

However, this condition may also escalate to what I call a “key-tastrophe” where the difference in key is so blatant and unpleasant that it cannot be enjoyed on any level by most reasonably sensitive faculties, usually resulting in severe facial distortion and some profanity. This doesn’t happen often but it does occur. Remixers who cause a key-tastrophe should probably be ashamed of themselves and should seriously rethink their motives.  (As a listener, it may help in this case to be an admirer of the music style referred to as “atonal” or even “cacophony”. A stiff drink and total teeth-clenching focus on MJ’s vocal may also help endure it.)

Yes, they can occasionally get away with it: I forgave one key-tastrophic remix simply because the mixer ended the song with an unexpected comment from Homer Simpson!

MJ had his favorite keys in which he preferred singing, so that is an additional help to remixers if they want a starting point. He expected his audience to want his songs exactly as first recorded. However, I never could quite see the sense of this, because lower keys would have been much more comfortable for his adult voice and his fans I think would not mind (or maybe not even notice) a transposition downwards, most people don’t….  But that was MJ. He had his ways and very solid instincts, honed by years of performing. However, “mix masters” may challenge his ways even if he did not.

And we have no way of knowing if, or how, his musical exploration would evolve had he lived longer…


(For a unique and much more detailed discussion of the mixer’s art, see author Simon Langford’s 2009 three-part series written from the remixer’s perspective, touching on some historical influences on remixing music and expanding on some of the mechanical issues I have mentioned, at the following Internet link:

This article continues in THE REMIX MANIFESTO Part 3.


MJ B&W image2




  1. corlista1 says:

    Bravo. I love this series. For one who has some musical background, I find it a fresh and informative look at MJ’s music and remixes. Thank you.

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